By: Maine Journal News Team
In her December 11, 2020 Executive Order, Governor Janet Mills instituted the strictest Executive Order in the nation by removing medical exemptions from the mask mandate. A review of mask mandates and orders issued by all other Governors in the nation, including New York and California, allow an exemption for certain medical conditions. As a result, many Maine citizens with disabilities, health issues or children with disabilities are unable to participate in society under Mills’ Executive Order.
Maine Disability Rights, run by Executive Director Kim Moody, supports the Governor’s Order and Mask Mandate which removes medical exemptions. Maine Journal News reached out to Moody and asked the following questions. Her responses are set forth below as well.
MJN: Can you explain why DRME took this position? Also, does the large amount of funding DRME receives from the State of Maine have any impact on the decision to support Mills’ mandate?
Moody: “DRME’s support of the mask mandate which excludes medical exemptions,” is not exactly how I would phrase it. Public accommodations (government buildings, grocery stores, etc.) must accommodate people with disabilities, and that applies to the mask-wearing mandate. Most people with disabilities can and do wear masks, but for those who can’t, they must be accommodated. I think there is a misperception out there, however, that the accommodation must be simply to not be required to wear a mask when you are in public places, but this is not the case. As we explain to callers, there are other ways to accommodate, such as curbside pickup, requesting to shop at off-hours, telehealth, and other alternatives to in-person interaction to prevent the spread of COVID. We have done training on COVID-related reasonable accommodations and created a form to assist people in requesting them, both of which are available on our website.
As far as why we took this position; many of our clients with severe disabilities have related health conditions, are on immune suppressant medications, are otherwise health compromised and/or live in congregate settings where their staff are in daily close physical proximity to them, to provide support and assistance. Many of these people with severe disabilities are more at risk of dying if they get COVID-19. That is why we want people to wear masks, which of course, brings forth the ultimate disagreement – we believe the science that overwhelming tells us all that masks help prevent the spread.
Regarding our funding – no, we zealously advocate against the State on numerous issues. We recently sued the State of Maine over inaccessible voting for print impaired individuals. And that is just one example. I imagine there are many in government who believe we should not take cases against them because we receive funding from them but generally speaking, law makers and executives understand that we have an important role and that role includes bringing cases against them frequently. It is really why we were created, when Congress passed the Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights and Assistance Act, in 1975, to look into the poor treatment people were receiving in large state operated institutions.
MJN: One follow up question…did you or anyone associated with DRME consult with the Governor’s Office or her administration before taking the position of supporting the mask mandate?
Moody: I think it was our position, nationally, as a P&A network, long before it was a mandate from Maine’s Governor.
Public filings as of 2018 (later filings are not available) show that Disability Rights Maine received $1,323,135 from the State of Maine out of a total revenue of $2,971,525 in 2018 which is why we posed the question of funding to Moody and whether it was a factor in her decision to support the mask mandate excluding medical conditions. She indicated it was not a factor (see response above).
Disability Rights Maine’s website contains a mission statement which is “To ensure autonomy, inclusion, equality and access for people with disabilities in Maine.” However, some families in Maine feel let down by and disappointed in Disability Rights Maine and its support of the Governor’s mask mandate which excludes medical conditions. (NOTE: We are using only first names and first letter of last names since the people who spoke to us have children with developmental disabilities or have disabilities themselves.)
When asked how the mask mandate affected her quality of life and her disability, Sabrina S. told us: “I’m legally disabled…I have a lot of neuropathy, trigeminal neuralgia pain, migraines, constant tingling in my face and eyes. Masks exacerbate these symptoms and some days the face pain is so severe, even the slightest touch is painful. I have had to travel to New Hampshire to shop because Maine doesn’t allow medical exemptions for mask wearing. In July of last year (while medical exemptions were still allowed) an employee at Hannaford’s physically pushed me in the back because she was angry I wasn’t wearing a mask. I called Disability Rights Maine and had a phone appointment. I was told someone would get back to me. They never did so I called again and they promised someone would get back to me. To this day, I have not heard back from Disability Rights Maine.” Sabrina S. adds “Now I am being bullied for being disabled. Nice job Disability Rights Maine for supporting the mandate which does not allow for medical exemptions and for not standing up for everyone who is disabled. What will it take for you to act? More suicide from those who cannot stand the isolation and discrimination?”
You can read our previous article written by Morgan Coffron about the Town of Acton, Maine and it’s “reasonable accommodation” for one of its residents who is unable to wear a mask. Click Here.
Johanna L. has a daughter with level one autism. Johanna says, “For the better part of a year, my daughter has been ostracized from society. She has been denied therapies and medical care multiple times and her quality of life has been drastically reduced. She is unable to wear a mask due to sensory issues and even several minutes of it becomes overwhelming and causes her to become overstimulated. One day, my daughter’s support worker took her to go shopping and my daughter (for the reasons stated above) was not wearing a mask. The store gave no warning to leave the store. Instead, the police arrived to escort my autistic daughter and her care worker out of the store. Consistency and structure are important for individuals on the autism spectrum. Some of her medical care providers have made accommodations for her by being the last patient of the day when no other person is in the building, segregating her, but many more have outright refused to see her. I have been told to work with her and get her used to wearing it. That’s like telling someone to put on a pair of shoes that are too small and just keep putting them on to get used to it. When the latest mask mandate which removed the medical exemptions was instituted, it removed any chance of my daughter going out in public. She had been working on learning to shop independently within a budget. She is no longer allowed to do that. Social interaction is vital for her to learn how to read social cures and body language which is something she struggles with. This has taken a toll on her mental health and growth. She has become withdrawn and her social skills have regressed. How do I sit by as a parent and watch my child’s quality of life disappear? She is being segregated from society for being born differently.” We asked Johanna L. what she thought of Disability Rights Maine support of the mask mandate which does not allow for medical exemptions. She replied “I am truly disappointed that Disability Rights Maine is supporting segregation of individuals who have a legitimate medical reason for being unable to wear a mask. Instead of fighting for the people they are supposed to represent, they are encouraging society to isolate them based solely on their assumptions that people are exploiting the medical exemptions. Why isn’t the quality of life of everyone they [Disability Rights Maine] claim to represent important to them? Why is it only a select few?”
Lauren F. wrote to us to say: “I was less than 2 years old when my psychotic uncle started molesting me. I was violently raped many times throughout my childhood. I remember his giant hand over my face. I couldn’t move. I was tormented by him both mentally and physically. The damage he inflicted continues to haunt me as an adult. Last March, of course, everything changed in so many ways. I did not hesitate to go back to work in June when the restaurant re-opened. I was eager to get back to work, to leave my house, to see people. I knew I had to wear a mask which caused me extreme anxiety. I had only worn one briefly in the grocery store a couple of times without success. Each time I tried, I couldn’t do it. I’d last about 10 minutes and my heart would start pounding and I’d break out in a cold sweat. I would have a hard time catching my breath. My eyes stopped focusing. I abandoned my cart of food in the store and left. Each time. I sat in my car crying before I went home empty-handed. But I don’t give up and I really wanted to go back to work. I thought I could handle it. I got through the season wearing a mask. It was terrible but I did my best to push through and hide the fact that I was struggling. I barely slept and when I did sleep, I had nightmares so bad that I preferred to stay awake. All of a sudden, the anxiety, migraines and stress were frequent and lasted for days. Flashbacks of my uncle returned. I could feel his hand over my face. I could feel the pain he inflicted on my body. I can feel the lack of safety. I had regular panic attacks at work. I decided that I needed to choose between my own mental health needs or wearing a mask.
Thankfully my husband did most of the shopping. I know I had the right to claim a medical exemption up until Janet Mills took that exemption away in December 2020 but even before that happened, the environment in Southern Maine has become so toxic and so filled with anger and fear. People, like me, without masks were being harassed and screamed at and threatened. It happened to me and I couldn’t let it happen again. It’s now almost March. I barely ever leave the house. I feel so lonely and isolated. People are quick to say ” Suck it up! It’s no big deal. It’s just a mask!” For me, it is so much more than a “just a mask.” I don’t want to be confronted. I just want to feel free to walk to the beach without a mask and without the fear of being harassed.”
Another parent of a disabled teen, Natasha S. told us “I am lucky in that I have support of my partner during this mask mandate. My son who is unable to wear a mask and who is non verbal has not gone out in public for over a year because of the mask mandates. The only contact he has with the world outside his home and school is going for long daily drives which I do often. For some disabled people who cannot wear a mask, the mask mandate has kept them from participating in society even in the slightest way. Neither the Governor nor her administration has not given any guidance on what “reasonable accommodations” business should make when they refuse entry to people who have medical conditions which prevent them from wearing a mask. People are just being turned away though one store told by a grocery store that my friend she should leave her disabled child in the car while she grocery shops. When I spoke to Disability Rights Maine about this issue and I asked in what way can they advocate for my son, they had no answer. There was just silence on the other end of the phone. While out on one of the drives with my son, he let me know he needed to use the bathroom. This presented a problem because businesses wouldn’t allow him inside to use the restroom as he is unable to wear a mask. In the end, my non-verbal teenage son had an accident in the car. How do I as a mother of a developmentally disabled teen explain to him that I care about him and his needs but we couldn’t use a restroom because of mask mandates? MJN explained to Natasha the Disability Rights Maine position as set forth above in Kim Moody’s responses above. “Their guidance to help people who cannot wear masks isn’t based in the reality of real life particularly with a disabled child. I’m not sure why she is discussing the science of masks in her response because it’s irrelevant to the conversation. I have some questions, is the only way Disability Rights Maine has tried to spread their guidance about accommodating folks who can’t wear mask for those people to go to their website? What other avenues have they taken? How are they reaching out to businesses to encourage this?” Those are great questions and we too would like to know the answers to those questions. Disability Rights Maine?
The comments above are only a small sample of those who have reached out to us to tell us their stories and how they have been let down by Disability Rights Maine supporting the mask mandate disallowing medical exemptions and thereby segregating disabled children, disabled adults, those suffering serious medical conditions and those who suffer from previous abuse and trauma from society because of their inability to wear a mask. Disability Rights Maine’s response indicates it supports the science of masks which is a reasonable response and those who are able to wear mask should wear masks if that is their choice. However, will Disability Rights Maine listen to their own mission statement “To ensure autonomy, inclusion, equality and access for people with disabilities in Maine” when it comes to the children and adults who are unable to obtain the quality of life standards set forth in its own mission statement?
As stated above, research of mask mandates throughout the nation indicate that only Governor Janet Mills has issued the strictest Executive Order for a mask mandate which does not allow for a medical exemption. A large segment of Maine’s population is adversely affected by Mills’ mandate and renders them unable to participate in society leaving many isolated, depressed and regressing in previous life skills learned.
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